Controlled Burn at Cedar Hill Ranch

by Joyce and Mike Conner

Shortly after purchasing Cedar Hill Ranch in 2013, we started learning about how much a controlled burn would help to reduce the thick Yaupon understory from much of our forested area (mainly from Billy Lambert, Tim Siegmund, and Bobby Allcorn – TPWD). A reduced brush understory would allow surface plants to take hold, leading to much more productive land for feeding and sheltering the native wildlife, and improving the soils. As managers of our wildlife land, we looked forward to the time when a controlled burn could be conducted safely and productively. But the land was too dense in the first years and we had difficulty getting the surface clear for grasses – there was too much forested land and we could not manage to get enough of it ready for a controlled “grass” burn. So, Mike and family members spent years reducing Yaupon and Eastern Red Juniper by chemical and mechanical means. In more recent years, we started hearing about a “forest” burn solution.

Texas Parks and Wildlife staff

The day finally arrived for our first forest burn on Thursday, February 27, 2020. But it did not come without many hours of preparation, both on the part of Texas Parks and Wildlife personnel and us landowners. Texas Parks and Wildlife personnel must be trained as fire specialists – to understand and monitor winds and humidity, understory leaf and grass litter, snags and overhanging branches, safety zones, water and fire supply equipment, clothing and on-ground equipment, team management, safety of all people involved – the list is lengthy but necessary to ensure safety of participants and neighboring households, animals, land, and structures. Finally, they had to notify EMS and Fire Station personnel about the burn. The landowners worked with TPWD biologists to identify the acreage to be burned, called the burn unit. Bobby Alcorn then developed a detailed and comprehensive burn plan. This plan described the area to be burned, the type of burn to be conducted, and the weather conditions necessary, and it gave a comprehensive analysis of the safety issues surrounding this particular burn unit. In late 2019 Mike Conner cleared a 10-foot bare sand firebreak and also cut down dead trees from the edge of the burn unit and moved them 30 feet into the interior of the unit. Toni Aguilar, TPWD Regional Controlled Burn Coordinator, and Bobby Allcorn, local TPWD Biologist, visited the site several times to monitor and approve Mike’s progress. Mike then notified and invited all the surrounding neighbors and also members of El Camino Real Chapter of the Texas Master Naturalists to attend.

Volunteers

On Thursday morning 7 Master Naturalists, one neighboring landowner, one Native Plants Society of Texas member, and 6 Texas Parks and Wildlife fire brigade personnel (a total of 15 individuals) arrived.

Everyone was given a map of the rectangular 50-acre tract that was to be burned so that everyone was familiar with the area. We volunteers were then given specific explanations and instructions about our activity and duties by Edwin Bowman, burn leader-in-training.

Drip torches

And then our wait began. A burn in a forested area with a mostly closed canopy or dense brushy understory needs a brisk wind, low humidity, and dry conditions. As the optimum weather circumstances neared, we moved to “Corner A” where we were given more instructions and then split into teams. Mason Conley’s team would work from Corner A and move south, Tim Siegmund’s team was to work from Corner A and move west. Since the team moving south was supposed to have less smoke, all of the women volunteers chose that team, leaving all of the men to face the worst smoke. (As it turned out, the smoke had a mind of its own and did just the opposite!) Each team had at least one walkie-talkie.

As each team started, Toni headed to the interior. We could see her occasionally and the fire that followed her path. (She was joined by different staff members at different times.) Bobby was in charge of watching the wind and humidity with his special equipment. He was in constant communication with all of the other leaders. A quick change in wind or sudden drop in humidity could cause unexpected movement of the fire, so this was a crucial task.

Learning how to torch

Surprisingly, the filled fire torches were heavy to carry in one hand (about 8 pounds). Once lit, the fire starter would “drag” the torch behind them, dripping the liquid flame in the leaf litter. This could be dangerous if you did not keep moving ahead of the flames now burning right behind your feet, or if you became distracted and turned, creating a circle around your feet of flame! Another danger could be created when you “tossed” the flames into the woods at various locations. As we volunteers waited for our turns to carry the torch, Bobby reminded us to also check across the safety zone for embers – a sign that the fire had jumped the barrier and could go rogue. This was difficult to do because the fire within the burn zone was mesmerizing! Luckily, we had Jay Whiteside (TPWD) driving one of the water trucks along the perimeter as he constantly watched for any potential problem.

Watching the torch

Pamela lucked out and was able to experience dripping her fire torch while simultaneously riding in a utv! (Disclaimer – This was done under the supervision of one of the fire specialists.)

Laying down the burn line

When the entire perimeter was torched, we regathered at the parking area for a review of the day. In the end, we learned that we had one more very important thing to do – check the entire perimeter for fire/glowing embers within 40 feet of the firebreak. Everyone decided to stay for this last job, so it was fairly quick work. When an ember or burning log was found, it was tossed farther into the interior. When Mike was told that there was one snag at the farthest corner of the burn unit that had to be taken down, he rushed back to the barn and got his bobcat. If left on its own, the snag could release embers that might travel across the firebreak and ignite a whole new part of the forest – creating a serious fire hazard! At the snag, we watched as Edwin and Mike took turns with the chain saw and the bobcat until the snag fell. Mike then moved the broken snag farther into the burn unit. After hosing down the snag’s embers, the day was now officially over (although Mike and I would need to re-visit the site over the next few days to confirm that all was still well).

Managing the burn line

We learned a lot about controlled burns that we had not previously learned from several workshops, seminars, and research. We also learned that this first burn was only the beginning. The forest would need to be burned several more times over the next years, as only some of the brushy understory was actually destroyed. Much of the yaupon and junipers will either regrow or will need another fire to finally kill it. Because the temperature, wind, and humidity must be fairly precise, it will always be difficult to plan the exact time and day for this activity. But, at least now, we feel more confident that we are able to perform it.

The burn line, burning

Below the credits are more of the many pictures taken during the day. Thanks to everyone who supervised and helped!

Credits:

El Camino Real Texas Master Naturalist Volunteers: Joyce and Mike Conner, Donna Lewis, Liz Lewis, Lisa Milewski, Pamela Neeley, and John Pruett.

Neighbor Volunteer: Fred Russell

NPSOT Volunteer: John Glos

TPWD Staff: Toni Aguilar, Bobby Allcorn, Edwin Bowman, Mason Conley, Tim Siegmund, and Jay Whiteside

The burn line
Ensuring the burn line stays to the interior
When fire jumps into the trees
We thought the day was over…
…only to find there was one more crucial step
The snag has to be removed
Pamela hoses down the snag stump
Lisa helps to hose the embers
The next day’s evidence of the burn

Wildscape in Winter

I had a need to buy chickens last weekend, so I took the female members of my family over to Bird and Bee Farm to get them. The chickens I got were great, and you can read about them here. But my real point was to share how much has been going on at the Wildscape project over there. Much of the work is led by our own Catherine Johnson.

The entrance shows all their certifications. The chicken house is in the rear.

I was impressed that there was so much in bloom in the middle of January, and equally impressed by how charming the design of the project is. There are so many sweet surprises lurking among the recycled material being used to create planters, edging and decorations.

Many of our members are strong believers of practicing what they preach and recycling or re-using materials as much as possible, and a tour of the wildscape provides a lot of good ideas. All sorts of kitchen and farming implements have found their way into the beds.

Of course, there were kitties to provide natural pest control. Rodents love bird food, and kitties love rodents!

Lots of flowers!

I also enjoyed watching the natural insect pest control in action as the guinea fowl and Rio Grande turkeys roamed the area.

Rio Grande turkey wants in the wildscape. Nope, it’s not for you.

It made me happy that Cindy Rek, one of the owners of the farm, used my guinea fowl photo to sell some of the guinea flock online! It’s great to be able to give back to folks who give so much to the community, our plants, and our animal friends.

Guineas and turkeys

Volunteer Opportunity at S. M. Tracy Herbarium

by Linda Jo Conn

Dale Kruse, curator at the herbarium at Texas A&M University at College Station, is in need of several volunteers on a regular basis to help with the new National Science Foundation digitization project. 

The S. M. Tracy Herbarium has thousands of vouchers that are to be included in the National Science Foundation digitization project.  At last count, there are over 360,000 vouchers in the S. M. Tracy Herbarium stored under strict environmental criteria.

Definition:  

voucher herbarium specimen is a pressed plant sample deposited for future reference. It supports research work and may be examined to verify the identity of the specific plant used in a study.

voucher specimen must be deposited in a recognized herbarium committed to long-term maintenance.

https://www.floridamuseum.ufl.edu/herbarium/voucher.htm
File:Neuchâtel Herbarium - Allium sphaerocephalon - NEU000100621.jpg
A typical herbarium voucher looks like this. (It is a dead flattened plant glued on a piece of special paper.)

The National Science Foundation digitization project involves the digital scanning of the vouchers in several selected herbariums in the United States including the S. M. Tracy Herbarium so that the uploaded images may be shared globally with all botanists and taxonomists. 

This volunteer effort at the S. M. Tracy Herbarium, located off of East University Drive in College Station, will involve several tasks, including:

  • Gluing dried, pressed specimens and their descriptive labels to special herbarium paper to create vouchers.
  • Re-gluing and / or re-enforcement of existing vouchers.
  • Computer activities such as data entry and digitization,
  • and other tasks as may be requested by Dale.
Result of the program will be digital images of the vouchers that look similar to this. 

The digital vouchers will then be uploaded into the National Science Foundation digitization project under the scope of the prestigious BRIT Herbarium in Fort Worth.

From there, the ultimate data entry will be accomplished using many volunteers including the existing Texas Master Naturalist volunteer effort project approved for the El Camino Real chapter under the Volunteer Management System (VMS) classification “Citizen Science Transcribing-Selections for BRIT”. 

To reach this final stage, tasks must be completed at the S. M. Tracy Herbarium.  If you are interested in volunteering on a regular basis at the herbarium, contact:

Dale Kruse
Curator:  S. M. Tracy Herbarium, Department of Ecology and Conservation Biology
Lecturer: Department of Range, Wildlife, and Fisheries Management
dakruse@tamu.edu                    
Herbarium: 979.845.4328

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Log Cabin Garden in Lexington Update

We’ve received a report from Sharon Sweet, sharing the work she and her husband Wesley have been doing on the beautiful butterfly garden they have been building and maintaining in Lexington. It’s at the log cabin area near the Lexington Senior Center. (See their initial post from April 2019 for more.)

How to Find the Garden

Maybe you’d like to check out the gardens in person! Sheri sends these directions:

The Lexington Log Cabin Garden is located on 4th Street, 1/2 block west of Rockdale Street (Loop 123).  It is directly north across 4th Street from the town square.  There is a large sign titling the Log Cabins in front of the garden.  I’m hoping to get this sign moved elsewhere so the garden is more visible.

The Lexington Senior Center Garden is located across from  the south-west corner of the town square on Main Street.  It is right around the corner of the Lexington Senior Citizens Center.

This gallery of photos will take you through their work over 2019. Be sure to click on the photos to see them full size. It’s really beautiful.

All Things Wild Holiday Festival

by Catherine Johnson

Last weekend, three members of our Texas Master Naturalist chapter traveled to Williamson County to attend the holiday fundraiser hosted by All Things Wild Rehabilitation organization.

Beautiful new facilities for rehabilitating animals.

We saw beautiful wildlife gifts and sampled baked goods. 

A great horned owl with a broken wing.

Since our last visit, many outdoor shelters have been built, including a huge raptor complex.  A zoologist provided owl programs and tours to view raptors. It was fascinating!

A shelter with one of its residents happily perched.

It’s easy to help out at this valuable organization, which helps so many injured and otherwise needy wild animals. From their website you can sign up for newsletters, get hours of operation, and see lists of needed supplies.  They also provide useful information about what to do if you find a wild animal that may be in need.

Watching a raptor demonstration.

Consider volunteering with All Things Wild. Master Naturalists can earn volunteer hours under the opportunity – Natural Resource Conservation.

Who’s looking at whom?